Mini-Interview with Chris Drangle

Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I’m not sure if this is comic or tragic, but I started writing flash for the gratification of finishing something. I was in the middle of writing a novel—years of it behind me, years to go—and I just felt starved for that crossing-the-finish-line feeling, that small moment where you feel like a functional human capable of completing a task. It was (I thought) a simple way to get a quick hit of “The End.”

Of course, that’s also where one of the differences shows up. A friend of mine, Adam O’Fallon Price, used to say that while there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, there might be such a thing as a perfect short story. I think there’s some truth to that, since even short, tight, scrupulously edited novels have a necessarily rangy quality to them. With much shorter forms, on the other hand, the entire thing can fit under a magnifying glass, and both writer and reader can bring a high level of attention to the language. (Not that long form writers don’t also strive for that.) So even if “The End” of the drafting process is closer to the beginning of a flash piece than it is with a novel, the end of the revision process remains a maddeningly movable target.

What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?

Well, I don’t think they’re as separable as they’re sometimes made out to be. Character without plot, or vice versa, might be like wearing a lifejacket with no air in it. (Do life jackets have air in them? You know what I mean. A pool float without air.) It’s the interplay between plot and character that makes each “work,” or fails to.

All that said, it’s character for me. The soapbox I’ve been using in class goes like this: has anyone seen a superhero movie recently? Has anyone found themselves watching aliens ride jet skis through the sky while cyborgs shoot lasers at them, and felt, like, bored? If we don’t care about the characters, it’s almost impossible to care about the circumstances surrounding them.

Granted, I love empty calories as much as the next self-proclaimed aesthete, and a balanced diet can certainly include car chases and conspiracies along with early-onset ennui and muted domestic strife. But as a writer I find it easier to engineer plot around characters. It’s harder for me to make special order characters for a premade plot.

Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?

I’ve been trying to change this for years, but: slow and precise? Maybe slow and messy is the inconvenient truth. Although it varies from day to day—sometimes I’m cruising through chapters with the top down, sometimes I’m staring at a paragraph for two hours before changing “fern” to “ficus.” Either way, you have to revise, which is why I wish I was a quick and messy writer. Trying to write a poised, polished first draft is like trying to build a clean, neat stack of kindling at your campsite. However it turns out, the next step is to light it on fire. Speaking of revision, that metaphor could use work.

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

This is a really fascinating question. I’ve been super lucky over the past decade-ish in that I’ve been able to keep a day job (academia) that consists of talking and thinking and writing about writing. But that lets in a classic mode of paranoia—do I have anything to say? Am I embedded enough in the real world to write about it? Have my “life experiences” become a closed loop of intensely uninteresting inside jokes?

The catch, of course, is that all life is real life. And there are innumerable paths from experience to representation, very few of which are straight lines. For me personally, I think that sooner or later pretty much everything influences the writing. An awkward date, a documentary about rock climbing, an argument with my dad, a thousand-mile drive, getting injured, getting engaged, watching the news, reading student evaluations, reading Yelp reviews—all of it goes in the tank. And everything in the tank influences how you write about whatever subject is in front of you, whether that’s engaged rock climbers or aliens on jet skis.

If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?

Does everyone say Lydia Davis? I confess that I absolutely did not get Davis the first five times I tried to read her. Not sure why. I thought my friends were pretentious nerds pretending to like these odd, baffling little paragraphs. Then I tried again last year, and for whatever reason it was totally different. I went straight from “I don’t get it” to “she’s a legend because she’s a genius.”

I just discovered Tyrese L. Coleman and Krys Malcolm Belc, and their work is awesome. Amelia Gray is awesome. Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God is fairly rad. “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” has a vintage Annie Proulx ending, a simple sentence that is simultaneously banal and horrific and hilarious. Robert Hass’s “A Story About the Body” is lovely and sneakily heartbreaking. “Binaries,” by S.B. Divya, reads like a six-part SF epic compressed into a thousand words. J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand is criminally undersung.

What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?

The next one! Joking aside (although I’m serious about that), I still think it’s extremely wonderful to get any recognition at all. It’s not a given and I hope never to take it for granted, especially since I wouldn’t blame anyone who decided to re-watch Broad City instead of investing their time in some rando Arkansan’s newest made-up story. So if you’re reading this right now, please trust that I appreciate it!

BIO: Chris Drangle is a writer from Arkansas. He earned an MFA at Cornell University, where he also taught creative writing and served as an assistant editor for Epoch Magazine. His fiction has recently appeared in Split Lip MagazineThe Adroit Journal, and One Story, and has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship at Bread Loaf, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford and splits his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Athens, Georgia.

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